At Highlandtown carnival, respite for Baltimore's Latino community and concern about immigration policy

Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Baltimore is hosting its carnival this week. The church has a significant Latino membership, and many said they were concerned about current events regarding immigration at the Mexican border.
Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Baltimore is hosting its carnival this week. The church has a significant Latino membership, and many said they were concerned about current events regarding immigration at the Mexican border. (Christina Tkacik / The Baltimore Sun)

When Donna Thomas first began working at the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church carnival more than 50 years ago, the parish was predominantly German, catering to East Baltimore’s large population of German-speaking Catholics.

Over the years, the church has become home to Spanish-speaking immigrants from various parts of Latin America.


Today, “we’re a bilingual parish,” said Thomas on Tuesday, the first night of the 90th annual carnival at the Catholic church in Highlandtown. The carnival extends through this weekend.

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The church’s bilingual approach extends to the carnival food. Maryland staples such as coddies and crab cakes are still popular, but a big draw Tuesday were Latin American specialties like Peruvian papa rellena — potatoes stuffed with meat and then deep fried — or Mexican street corn called elote.


For many Latinos who attend the parish, it’s a safe place in a city and country where they increasingly feel a risk of deportation.

“When we leave [the house], we leave in fear,” said Carmen Huerta of Ecuador, who was manning one of the festival’s roulette tables, where a 50-cent bet could win a liter bottle of soda. She said her heart aches for the children at the border, who she worries will be scarred for life by being separated from their parents.

The current immigration crisis was close in the minds of many Latinos in attendance. Many parishioners are in “shock that our government would use children as a negotiating chip,” said parish priest Fr. Bruce Lewandowski. Many arrived in the country as unaccompanied minors themselves before the change in policy.

However upsetting the images may be, they won’t likely be a deterrent to prospective migrants, said Lewandowski. “People are presuming that eventually they’ll be let go,” he said.

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One man from Guatemala — who asked that his name not be used for fear he would be deported — said his sister arrived in the U.S. a week ago and came to the country with her daughter even knowing there was a chance they might be separated. The risk was worth it, he said, given dangers she faced at home in Guatemala. A single mother, she was attacked and robbed on the streets, he said.

He said that she told him after arriving in the United States through Mexico, immigration officials did not separate them — though they were provided only meager food while she was detained several days. She was eventually released, but with an ankle monitor to track her movements in the U.S.

Here in Baltimore, he said, many immigrants worry officials will take them away. “You really lock your doors tight at night because you’re afraid immigration is going to show up,” he said.

Reports of children being held at the border break his heart, he said, especially “the pain of mothers being separated from children.”

Still, he said, “I think that people are always gonna keep coming.”

An audio recording that appears to capture the voices of small children crying out for their parents at a U.S. immigration facility took center stage Monday.

The Trump administration recently began enforcing a “zero-tolerance” policy that criminally prosecutes anyone trying to cross the border illegally, including parents traveling with children. Adults are sent to the U.S. Marshals Service for criminal proceedings while many children are sent to facilities run by the Department of Health and Human Services. Nearly 2,000 children were separated from their families over a six-week period in April and May.

This week, Catholic bishops including Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore urged the Trump administration to stop separating children from their parents at the border. Lori said in a statement that the action “threatens the stability of families, unduly inflicts trauma and hardship on those involved, including innocent children, and runs counter to the compassion and justice that are foundational to our American society.”


Lewandowski echoed that sentiment Tuesday. “What’s happening at the borders is immoral,” he said. “The effect that this could have on the development [of children]… it’s shameful.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Erin Cox contributed to this story.

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